Steve Rzasa here. Everyone’s done such a great job with the story thus far! I’m excited to chip in with the next installment of our grand quest.
Hold on to your hats…
* * * * *
I’d heard the howling long before I saw them.
Wolf-men. Four of them.
My hand, driven by instinct, slapped at the hip that once bore a scabbard. When was I going to remember that I no longer had a blade?
The beasts circled us as Tekla and I backed into the clearing. The trees hemmed us in, their silhouettes black as coal against the starry night sky above. With the shadows pressing in from all sides, the wolf-men snarling just outside the circle of light cast by Tekla’s torch, and the branches reaching down from the pines, all of nature seemed to be set against us.
So be it. Nature has been corrupt since the Descent, and even more so since the Crystal’s shadow was cast.
Light will dispel darkness.
“Fell beasts,” Tekla muttered. She held a blade as long as my forearm in her right hand. The woman had an unending supply of those weapons. She flashed the torch in a half circle. “Abelard, I don’t suppose the flames will strike much fear into their hearts.”
“They are mortal beings like us. They have fear.” She did not need to know of the fear encroaching on my heart. It made it all the more difficult to focus, to find the Light.
The tendril slipped from my grasp.
Pray. Do not be afraid.
“Priest. We come for the girl.” The largest of the wolf-men, a gray beast with a ridge of silver hair from neck to tail, padded around us on all fours. I could hear his wicked claws churning the dirt. He curled back his lips to reveal yellow fangs stained with blood. It sickened me to think of the humanity his kind had abandoned to achieve powerful animal forms.
“You will not take her.” I was pleased my voice sounded strong issuing out of my throat, dry as it was.
“Not your choice. We will take. You can die slowly, or quickly.” He lurched up onto his hind legs in crude approximation of the man he once was. “Either way you are my meal.”
I pulled Tekla to my side. “You will not harm her.”
She yanked her arm back. In the torchlight the blush on her cheeks was apparent, if fleeting. “I’ll answer for myself, priest-mage, with my blade.”
“Take them!” Grey tipped back his head and howled at the sky. His three compatriots—or den-brothers, perhaps—lunged.
Tekla cried out as fiercely as any man-wolf. She threw herself toward the nearest pair of wolves. Her blade flashed. Blood sprayed across her face and tunic.
I had other matters occupying my attention.
The grey one was almost atop me. Reach inside. Find that source from the Holy One. Lord Most High, grant the Light.
There it was.
Grey’s headlong rush slowed—as did everything else. Tekla’s furious assault with blade and torch, the contortions of the man-wolf disemboweled on the clearing, even the flies that buzzed by my head. I could hear it all and see it all, as if time itself were mired in a clear morass.
I had no sword. It mattered not. We of the Church Itinerant are often called upon to protect the innocent. Hence we are well-trained in Tardus Pugnis.
The grey went airborne. He could have been giving me a warm hug for all the menace the slowed action conveyed. My heart pounded wildly.
Grab the left paw. Swing him about—the motion wrenched my arm. Kick to the midsection. Back of other hand to the beast’s neck.
Everything sped up to normal with such suddenness I was momentarily unbalanced.
Grey tumbled across the clearing. He growled and tested his paw gingerly. Good. It was damaged.
Man-wolves might be fallen and twisted creatures, but they started out with the same form given to all men by the Lord Most High. Tardus Pugnis emphasizes pain.
Snarls alerted me to the second wolf. His claws slashed at my armor, which was more than adequate to deflect their impact. I scooped a handful of dirt into his eyes, bright and yellow and full of hate. He yipped in apparent pain, a long enough distraction for me to plant a fist on his sternum. Something beneath the fur and muscle cracked.
We grappled there, my hands locked to his claws as his snapped blindly forward. Hot breath stank of meat and rot and filth. I gritted my teeth. Fear banged at the cage in which I’d locked it. It yearned to run wild in my heart. Lock it away.
Tekla shouted a warning. With a twist of my head I saw Grey back for more. One would think he’d be more cautious.
Split the tendril. Two at once was always a difficult process.
Strengthen me, Lord.
I wrenched my right hand free of the beast and gestured sharply at Grey. Bluish-white light rippled through the air in a shimmering circle, like a bowl of crystal. It struck Grey mid-chest and flung him a decent distance. I’d say twenty paces or more.
The beast in my grip took that opportunity to clamp its jaws about my otherwise engaged left arm. Father above! The pain was blinding. I shoved my right hand against the beast’s neck, digging through fur until I found the sweating flesh beneath.
Bloodlust joined fear in its escape attempt.
Do not let me give in to hate.
I shuddered as I cast up my terror to the Lord Most High. The tendril reformed, building strength—
Something rent the air with a sound as harsh as a scream. Blood exploded before me. Red drops on white armor.
The beast collapsed. Its throat was slit from ear to ear.
A long dagger, covered in blood, quivered from its new home embedded in a nearby tree.
Tekla knelt beside me. Her face—such a beautiful face for one so skilled in dealing death—bore a worried expression. She had blood all over her face, two long scratches down one cheek, and tears on her tunic. “Are you hurt?”
“It is nothing that convalescence in the cathedral and constant prayer cannot right.” I let her help me to my feet. My arm throbbed.
“You’re bleeding.” Tekla tore a sleeve from her tunic and wrapped it around the wound. As she ministered to the cuts, I assessed our position. Fire crackled in one corner of the clearing where Tekla had apparently dropped her torch. We’d best stomp it out before it spread to the trees. The beast with which I’d grappled was dead. Grey was either dead or winded—he made no move. And Tekla’s opponents, the brown man-wolves—they were both gutted.
“One hundred and two,” she said in a voice almost too soft to register above a breeze.
“That’s how many I have killed. There’s nothing to change that when my time walking Celis comes to an end.”
I placed a hand atop one of hers. It was blazing hot. My heart thudded—but not of fear. “The Father Above forgives the repentant, Tekla. You are his child, as am I.”
She stared back at me. She did not remove her hand.
Once I’d felt such a connection with a woman. Long before I’d joined the Church Itinerant. But I could not marry outside the Church—especially not as a priest-mage.
Our eyes met. Hers were such a lovely blue.
The blue went suddenly white.
She gasped and pulled away. “Abelard! I…I can’t see!”
“Remain calm.” I held her shoulders. “What do you sense?”
“The Flow … something has darkened it. My eyes, Abelard, help me!”
I reached out to the Light. Help me see what man cannot. The source of this dark interference…
“How touching. Do you wish a kiss?”
The man-wolf at the clearing’s edge was a head taller and far stronger in appearance than the four we’d fought. He was black as the night itself, with hideous green eyes and a sneer of fangs that dripped drool.
He was not alone. More man-wolves—eight, ten, twelve?—emerged from the wood all around us.
The man-wolf held his left arm aloft. From palm to elbow the fur was concealed by a silver gauntlet of writhing metal. It glowed with a deep purple and red light. “I am Ral, priest-mage, and I have come for what belongs to the Landgrave.”
I stepped before Tekla. She shivered. I held up my right hand. But the tendril—it would not yield to me. It shriveled and backed from my grasp.
I was stunned. Could the power of the Lord Most High fail?
Then the realization struck me. Fear. It was loose from its cage, and a cold sweat drenched me beneath my armor. My arm shook.
Do not be afraid. They sounded like child’s talk.
Ral laughed, a deep, grating sound that echoed around the clearing and drown out the low growls from his horde. “She is ours, priest-mage. You are no match for the archmage. He longs for your souls. I long for your flesh.”
“Don’t leave me,” Tekla whispered. She sounded so afraid.
How could this be?
That gauntlet. It held her in some thrall, and put a wall of terror between me and the Lord.
I prayed for deliverance.
And a child stepped from between the trees.
It was an even wager who was more surprised—me or Ral. The man-wolves made no move to intercept as he walked lightly upon the grass toward me. They sniffed the air and growled questions.
He stood before me—and my stomach fell. It was the boy possessed of evil, the one whom we’d freed from Initus’ grasp upon first entering the dank wood. There was no dark cloud about him now, no shadow, only an air of something good and pure. He smiled. His eyes were bright and hazel, and his hair curly and black as coal.
“Are you afraid?” he whispered.
I knelt before him. How deep was my shame, that I would admit my failure to a child who was barely twelve seasons in age? Yet I nodded all the same.
“But the Lord Most High will never forsake you. Be at peace.” His smile broadened. “I’ll stand with you.”
He held my hand.
Light suffused me. A startled gasp escaped my lips. I stood bolt upright. All vestiges of fear fled as shadow flees the sun.
Ral let forth a deep roar of outrage that rattled the pines and shook needles from their branches. “Kill the priest-mage and the cub!”
The boy gripped my hand more tightly. The tendril burst alive, not waiting to be found, but thrusting itself into my awareness. Such power—I’d never before experienced it.
As the man-wolves charged, I could scarce contain the wave building. I threw out my hands and cried to the heavens.
Father preserve us!
The waves of blue light blasted forth with such intensity I had to squint against the light. The ring blasted outward from me, Tekla and the boy in an expanding front that slammed full force into the beasts. Their howls and shrieks were drowned out by the rush of wind accompanying the light. Wood splintered and crashed. The fire lit by the torch was put out in a burst of smoke.
I collapsed onto my hands and knees. Tekla?
She was alive, but unconscious in a heap beside me. She could be sleeping in a feather down bed.
The boy? He sat cross-legged to my right, as if he were taking in a bit of star gazing.
I could not believe what I saw. The trees around us were splintered and shattered, for dozens of feet in every direction. The man-wolves lay broken, all dead—their bodies scorched and burned, yet no stench of smoke or flesh arose. Ral took the brunt of the devastation. His body was mangled into fur and burn.
“They… they didn’t touch you.” I suppose it was more a question for the boy than a statement.
He nodded. “Animals don’t mind me. All the beasts of the Dank Wood leave me be.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Luther. What’s yours?”
“Abelard St. Boniface.”
“Wait here, Abelard.” The boy approached Ral’s carcass with care. He lifted the singed gauntlet from the man-wolf’s arm.
He held the gauntlet aloft. “This is shiny. But it could be dangerous. We shouldn’t leave it here.”
My vision swam. Before I could protest, my consciousness pitched headlong into oblivion.